Monday, April 2, 2012

Hearts and Wallets

Sunday's New York Times carries a piece, "Hungry Hearts", by Mark Edmundson, on the value of a college education, for those students who are driven to learn. The central sentence is
There are plenty of young people out there who will end up in jobs that don’t demand college degrees: yet college is still right for them.
The rest of the article is mostly about those students, and surely flattering to the reader--anybody who gets past paragraph one is thinking "Yes, that was me then".

Yet as someone who knew some of these students back then--none from impoverished families that I recall, but few from rich ones--and who knows something about modern-day tuitions, I wonder about the implication in
The implication here is that paying for college is like putting money into a set of stocks or a mutual fund. It’s an investment.
Well, yes. That has been the implication of American colleges for a good hundred years, and I dare say before that. I understand that a professor might regret this mercenary view, and I sympathize. However viewed, though, paying for college emphatically is paying, and these days it is paying at rates few of us can sustain for investing. Some numbers may show why I feel unease here.

Mr. Edmundson has been teaching for 35 years, he writes, which gives us a starting point at the academic year 1978-79. As I calculate it,
  • 1978-1979: U.Va. tuition $525, required fees $324, total $849; U.S. minimum hourly wage $2.65, ergo $106 per 40 hour week; a bit over eight weeks to make the equivalent of tuition and fees.
  • 2011-2012: U.Va. tuition $9,240, required fees $2,344, total $11,584; U.S. minimum hourly wage $7.25, $290 per 40 hour week; a bit over 38 weeks to make the equivalent of tuition and fees.
    So 25 years ago, a U.Va. student could expect to make most of his or her tuition and fees in the course of summer's work. Today that summer's work doesn't make much of a dent. (U.Va. figures--for Virginia residents--courtesy of the University of Virginia; minimum wage figures from the U.S. Department of Labor.)

    With room and board, the university reckons about $24 thousand per year for the Virginia resident. Some of those students Mr. Edmundson wants in his class come from families for whom that is a serious amount of money. Arguing against the notion of investment would be a good deal easier at a lower cost.

    No comments:

    Post a Comment